More foreigners are learning Chinese and enjoying immense benefits.
Chinese Idioms and phrases always amaze me. When I was younger, I was never interested in the Chinese language. I am a pure Chinese and my father hailed from the Fujian province of China while my mother was Chinese and came from Indonesia.
The characters of the language always stumped me. The use of Singapore Chinese characters before 1969 was first traditional and was very complex. One can hardly remember all the strokes. It requires a really diligent person to excel in Chinese. After 1969, there was simplification and eventually, after 1976, Singapore fully adopted the simplified Chinese Characters of the Republic of China. Even with this, it can be a challenge to learning Chinese.
Ironically, my father was a Chinese teacher in a pure Chinese-speaking school. For some reason, out of seven siblings, my parents sent three brothers and one sister to the Chinese school where he taught while he sent another brother, my eldest sister, and myself to a neighborhood English speaking school. Talking about not putting all your eggs in one basket.
Studying is like sailing against the current: a boat must forge ahead or it will be swept downstream.—– A Chinese quote
In my home, we conversed in both languages besides our native dialect which was Hakka. Whoever dominates the conversation with the language ended up speaking the language he or she is schooled in. I spoke with my Chinese Speaking siblings in Chinese but spoke in English with the rest of the siblings who studied in English schools. It was natural that those who were Chinese schooled did not improve in English.
When it came to Chinese, though I was conversant at a basic level and understand it. However, the writing was a hurdle. I did not really love the learning of it hence it meant a very low score for this subject in school. I was very impressed with my fellow classmates who could recite Chinese poetry and wrote essays beautifully while my essay was peppered with blanks and totally incoherent.
When my love for learning Chinese began
The love for learning Chinese came late in my life. It was after I met my patient from China who came for dental treatment about two years ago. Her name was Jean and she graduated from Sichuan University in China. I saw her carrying a thick literature book and was impressed.
From our brief conversation after the dental treatment, I found that she came to Singapore to experience her culture and pick up English. Though her English was halting, her Chinese was polished. She worked as a cashier at the Supermarket and the work did not give her many opportunities for learning the language so I offered to coach her English if she did the same for me in Mandarin.
Then began a year of mutual tutoring twice a week after work until her work contract ended and Jean went back to China. She was a good teacher. While I focused on her reading and pronunciation which was her main concern, she focused on my assimilation of her teaching of Chinese sayings and stories behind the idioms. That fascinated me so much, I continued to study on my own with the help of the language apps which she introduced to me as well as watching Chinese dramas on Youtube.
What fascinated me about Chinese idioms? They are called 成语‘Cheng Yu’ and typically consist of four characters but maybe more. They convey so much meaning and may be derived from an ancient myth, story, or historical fact. There are thousands of them and is a wonderful way to understand Chinese culture.
A) Interesting idioms with a story behind them
1)The idiom 守株待兔 literally means “to wait for the hares”. It is a metaphor for those who wish to make gains without working and always dream of having windfalls.
The story was about a farmer who plowed on a field. One day, a hare scuttled past him and accidentally knocked into a tree and died. The farmer brought the hare home and turned it into a delicious meal.
Since then, the farmer refused to tend to his land and waited at the tree for free ‘dinner’. The hare never appeared his way again. Meanwhile, his field became overgrown with weeds. When the neighbors came to find out why he had stopped work and abandoned the field, they laughed at his stupidity.
This phrase is used when describing a situation that requires one to work and not idle. For example in a conversation, one may say, “世界上 没有 那么多 守株待兔 的 事情”. That means “There are not so many pleasant things as windfalls.”
Example 2; “找工作 不能 守株待兔，要 主动寻找 机会” It means “One shouldn’t expect to get a job by waiting but be proactive”.
2)The idiom杞人忧天 is to describe someone who has irrational fears. How did this phrase come about?
In ancient times, there was a small country called Qi and there lived a man who was very fearful. He was terrified by situations such as a strong wind, even the sight of a bird falling to the ground was a shock to him. He asked the passers-by if the sky would fall but they ignored him. He thought they were mad.
He hid in his home as he feared that the sky would fall on him. One day, someone told him that it would not happen and he went out one night for a stroll. He witnessed a shooting star and thought that the sky, moon, and stars were falling. This man had imaginary and groundless fears
When used in conversations, the following sentences are examples:
Someone says, “你 不必 杞人忧天，生活中 没有 那么多 坏事” It means, “Don’t worry too much. Life isn’t all about bad things”.
她总是 担心 世界 毁灭，简直是 杞人忧天。She worries about the world coming to an end, that is indeed a groundless fear.
That is the beauty of the Chinese language for me. It explains the situation, describes a person in not too many words but knowing the background story or the origin leads to easier use when the occasion calls.
B ) Some idioms paint a situation in an indirect way and yet convey deep meaning.
1)调虎离山 literally means to lure a tiger out of the mountain. This expression is employed when someone uses tricks to make the opposite party leave the original location so that you could make use of the opportunity to achieve your objective.
2) 打草惊蛇 literally means to beat the grass and frighten the snake. As a strategy, it means to act rashly and alert the enemy.
Such colorful ways of expressions are not only enlightening and elegant, but it also elevates the standard of spoken and written Chinese which makes the language so alluring.
C ) Idioms that have an imaginative way of describing a situation without saying plainly A is A or B is B.
- 上梁不正下梁歪—If the upper beam is not straight, the lower beam will be crooked will not make any sense when translated. However, when spoken in Chinese, it is used to refer to a situation where the upper level or a senior who should have an exemplary role and does not have one. As a result, his juniors or followers would follow suit and do things as unethical or wrong as the senior or person with authority.
2) 不进一家门不是一家人 — -Awkwardly translated as if you don’t enter the same house, you are not family. The English equivalent of this is ‘Birds of the same feather, flock together’. Often, it is used to refer to people from the same family or group who display the same attitudes or traits and may have a sarcastic undertone.
This language continues to enthrall me.
D ) Even English idioms have their expressions in Chinese.
- 一箭双雕 comes from the expression ‘Kill two birds with one stone’. Here the stone is replaced by the arrow and it means to accomplish two goals with one task.
- 人不可貌相 is the Chinese equivalent of ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’. It means you do not judge a person by his or her look. This is to advise that we do not make shallow judgements at face value of something.
Chinese is a marvelous language just like our languages. There is a misconception that Chinese is hard to learn. All languages and for that matter, all skills are difficult to master if you do not have a burning interest in the first place.
Many foreigners are picking up this language and some even choose to stay in China to immerse themselves in the learning. It is not surprising, given the rise of China as a world economic superpower.
Picking up Chinese is very easy. Master the basics and root of the verb which is the base form of the verb. When conjugated, it can form another verb. Understanding how words are derived and how some phrases have stories behind them help in learning Chinese.
Try learning Chinese and find your life enriched in a thousand ways by the thousands of idioms.
Read more at Medium– Summer Lotus@rosalindho